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How to write badly (4): Rocking the flow

We continue our summer class on writing badly, which started to minor acclaim quite recently.

Good writers always make a big deal of sequencing their thoughts just so a reader can follow along easily and a paragraph is a sort of organic entity that becomes part of a larger, beautiful whole, like a leaf on a tree. Well, if you’re aspiring to bad writing, it’s always fall for these leaves, and they’re dropping off the trees in an unpredictable manner.

Have you noticed how the truly righteous, when they go on and on about something, leave out the vital connections between their thoughts? That’s part of the quality we’re looking for when we disrupt the logical flow of your writing. You can find many good examples in letters to the editor. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is political, religious, cultural, or food-related—most highly opinionated writers are having a hard time keeping up with the syntax and logic, because they have so much to say, so quickly. They usually feel that smart folks like themselves will understand well enough, because they have a strong message to share.

If you place the equivalent of verbal rocks into your flow of copy, readers will stay with you and only eventually realize how confused they are. You need to exercise restraint in this practice.

The problem with such disrupted writing is that it often goes overboard. You lose the reader altogether instead of seeding gradual confusion. Don’t be heavy-handed—the right touches will knock the flow of the copy sideways and your audience will follow along for paragraph after paragraph. For example, if you change just the right word in the right place, you will ensure reader fascination along with befuddlement. Try a “what’s more” when you are really not continuing a line of thought. If you feel sure of your steps, use a “however” when you are not actually expressing an opposing concept. To soften the impact, you might experiment with “as well, however…” Even the occasional “also” inserted in completely inappropriate locations will advance the obscurity of the copy.

Reader still with you? You can pile it on. Try frivolously switching tenses in the middle of a paragraph. If you use a compound tense, such as the relatively rare past perfect, the flow will slow—I guarantee it! A fine trick is using the future tense for something that is going on right now. A lot of presenters and public speakers love doing this. Most listeners eventually catch on, but initially, yes, this is very confusing and will distract from what you’re actually talking about. It works perfectly well to make written copy more nebulous.

Assuming your readers are tenacious, you can mine your content in a more texturized manner. For example, consider demonstrative pronouns without clear antecedents—such an innocent, every-day practice. But this can work wonders in your bad writing. You can try obfuscating with personal pronouns if you dare, especially if you could refer to more than one person of the same gender. Who knows what she was trying to tell me, or who this was.

Finally, and I see this done gracelessly and very often in user manuals and other technical documentation, even in cookbooks, and in the recipes the newspapers crib from them. It works like this: Write perfectly fine paragraphs without using any of the simple tricks we just mentioned. Then, when you’re almost done, cut a sentence here and there. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll give yourself away. A missing statement every four or five paragraphs or so will do the job. People will read and follow along, maybe even try the steps you describe, and then—kapow! The conceptual trap door opens and it’s a steep drop down.

Just a few simple hints that help you rock the flow. If you like, you can work them in just like the last bad practice—write beautifully, then edit down. That way, you will avoid making the copy too obviously poor.

More soon—I promise.

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Filed under bad writing, communications, content, content marketing, marketing, writing

How to write badly: Keeping a healthy balance

Considering the popularity of bad writing in commercial and technical communications and marketing, it’s surprising that only very little credible guidance is available to help writers out. Most of the training and coaching for writers directs them toward excellence, not mediocrity. Is that really helpful? It seems to me that there’s way too much help available for a writer who wants to be good, but next to none for somebody who aspires to awfulness. Obviously, a lot of businesses, organizations, and public-sector entities prefer writing of poor quality. Writers need to be up to the task, and I’ll do my best to help us out. I know this will take serious effort and perseverance from you and me. Like anything that’s worth doing, bad writing doesn’t happen all by itself. I will get to the details of the discipline in an informal series of blog posts.

For today, let’s consider one important principle. Don’t overdo it.

You know why? Imagine a screen or page jammed with vague generalities, patronizing language, redundancies, jargon, passive voice, cute alliterations, puns, acronyms, clichés, very long sentences, recycled headlines, pronouns without clear antecedents, and so forth. Will anybody read it? Of course not. Viewers will stumble at the end of the second or third line, roll their eyes, and move on.

That’s not what you want. You need them to stay with you to the last miserable word, or they won’t get what you’re telling them, and your clients, if you are a commercial writer, won’t get their money’s worth. Readers expect to see what they know—some inarticulate, immature writing, but also some actual content that interests them and is not entirely what they’ve read before. Therefore, you need to learn to be disciplined in your pursuit of poor prose. A pun in the headline is fine, especially if it’s ambiguous. A ludicrous generalization in the first sentence, great—it will irritate some and make others curious. But after that, take it easy. Try to deliver at least a couple of sentences that introduce your subject in an attractive manner before you take a dive. At that point, think about offering a long, maybe not quite grammatical sentence that also includes a quote from a famous subject-matter expert. After that, try for a surprise—a clear, concise statement in fresh language. But be sure to follow that up with a non-sequitur generalization. See, you have already found your rhythm!

Many kindly readers know to expect and accept this writing style. Often, they don’t have a choice, because they have to make do with what they get from their bosses, vendors, business partners, even their friends and colleagues. And, in any case, a lifetime of exposure to poor writing works like anesthesia. It doesn’t really rattle you until you come out of it.

So remember: Your bad writing can’t be extreme. It needs to come across as genuine and unintended. Like it or not, you will have to sprinkle it generously with almost flawless, even luminous verbiage.

Mistakes need to be made, will be made—brilliantly. More soon!

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Filed under bad writing, communications, writing